Steven Spielberg's best movie in at least a decade, "Catch Me If You Can" is a capricious, invigorating, infectiously jaunty caper about one of the most extraordinary con men in United States history.
In the mid-1960s, Frank Abagnale Jr. passed himself off as an airline pilot and fooled Pan Am, as a doctor and got a job as a Georgia hospital's graveyard-shift emergency room manager, and as a lawyer, becoming an assistant prosecutor in Louisiana under the wing of his unsuspecting fiancée's father.
And when he was finally caught -- after cashing millions of dollars in bogus checks to boot -- Frank Abagnale Jr. was all of 20 years old.
In the movie, the charade begins when 16-year-old Frank (played by Leonardo Dicaprio in one of his finest performances to date) is pulled from the private high school that his IRS-persecuted father (Christopher Walken) could no longer afford and enrolled in a public school. On his first day of class Frank is mistaken for a substitute teacher, and on a whim he runs with the idea -- teaching classes, assigning and grading homework, putting the fear of bad grades into cocky jocks. And he wasn't discovered for three whole weeks.
When his parents' divorce turns his world upside down (a sensation captured with bona fide, pained bewilderment by DiCaprio), Frank runs away, kiting checks for months on the bank account his dad had opened for him with $25 -- and when that simplistic scam runs out of steam, he starts getting creative.
Inspired by the time his father dressed him up as his chauffeur to look like a big shot while trying to secure a loan, Frank gets his hands on a Pan Am uniform (from the airline's tailor) and an FAA license (he makes a copy while pretending to interview an Pan Am manager for his school paper), then flies around the country for free, posing as a co-pilot on vacation. Soon he's forging his own Pan Am paychecks, too, by soaking the airline's logo decals off of toy planes and pasting them onto blank bank drafts he's fabricated.
With an uncommonly light touch that doesn't leave his fingerprints all over the picture, Spielberg plays all this deception for the cheeky, opportunistic fun it is in young Frank's mind -- and the feeling is completely contagious, thanks in part to a mellifluous, period-styled, progressive jazz score by John Williams (his most creative, unusual work in years). Costume designer Mary Zophres ("Ghost World," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") and production designer Jeannine Oppenwall ("Pleasantville," "L.A. Confidential") aid immeasurably in creating the movie's transporting, sunshiny-'60s atmosphere that fits perfectly with DiCaprio and co-star Tom Hanks' blithe and brilliant performances.
Hanks plays starched-shirt FBI Agent Carl Hanratty, the amusingly humorless hound to Abagnale's fox, who is frustratingly one step behind this teenage charlatan from their first encounter, in which Frank makes his getaway by claiming to be a Secret Service agent also on the trail of the same unknown check frauder. Watching Frank think on his feet in this scene is one of the film's shining moments as DiCaprio and Hanks play off each other's nervous energy, setting the tone for the rest of their friendly-rivalry relationship. (Frank calls Carl every Christmas Eve, in part out of genuine loneliness and in part to taunt him.)
Forced to run after being discovered, Frank lands in Georgia, where his flirtations with a naive, insecure candy-striper (Amy Adams, "Drop Dead Gorgeous") lead to faking diplomas, posing as a doctor and landing a job at her hospital. When they fall in love, Frank finds himself in New Orleans meeting her parents (Martin Sheen and Nancy Lenehan) and spinning a yarn about being this close to having a law degree, just to impress her father, a state prosecutor. In a stroke of pure determination, he's soon passed the Louisiana Bar and takes a job with his future father-in-law -- that is until Agent Hanratty finds him again, leading to another exciting, extremely narrow escape.
Very much in the spirit of films like "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Catch Me" is just as vivid in its characters' emotional depth as it is in depicting Frank's funny, seat-of-his-pants survival in his doctor and lawyer identities through gleaning what information he can from episodes of "Dr. Kildare" and "Perry Mason."
Hanks finds humanity and sublime humor in the dead-seriousness of Hanratty's determined pursuit, and DiCaprio and Walken share a strong bond as a father and son whose fates seem to be forcing them in opposite directions. Each time Frank returns home on the sly, things have gotten worse for his dad -- who can't accept any money from the boy without arousing the suspicion of both the FBI and the IRS. Walken is heartbreaking in these scenes, especially when he sees Frank still scheming to get his parents back together, and wishing the kid really could work the same magic on his ex-wife he seems to work on the world.
The film really has only two small imperfections. One is a scene in which DiCaprio goes overboard in his character's enthusiasm at wishing Hanratty a Merry Christmas. No big deal. The other is an episode that finds Frank posing as a pilot once more and recruiting stewardesses from a college as if he were hosting a beauty contest. The concept lacks veracity, but the payoff is a hoot, so there's little harm done to what is otherwise a scintillating delight of a film.
Run time: 141 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 25th December 2002
Box Office USA: $164.4M
Box Office Worldwide: $351.1M
Distributed by: DreamWorks SKG
Production compaines: DreamWorks SKG
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Fresh: 186 Rotten: 8
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale Jr., Tom Hanks as Carl Hanratty, Christopher Walken as Frank Abagnale, Sr., Martin Sheen as Roger Strong, Amy Adams as Brenda Strong, James Brolin as Jack Barnes, Brian Howe as Earl Amdursky, Frank John Hughes as Tom Fox, Steve Eastin as Paul Morgan, Chris Ellis as Special Agent Witkins, John Finn as Assistant Director Marsh, Jennifer Garner as Cheryl Ann, Nancy Lenehan as Carol Strong, Ellen Pompeo as Marci, Elizabeth Banks as Lucy, Guy Thauvette as Warden Garren, Candice Azzara as Darcy, Thomas Kopache as Principal Evans, Nathalie Baye as Paula Abagnale, Max Kerstein as Penner Brother, Jessica Collins as Peggy